When people discuss vice presidential running mates, I’m always surprised that they tend to get fixated on one factor to the exclusion of everything else. The truth is that there are a lot of considerations in selecting a running mate. Among them are geography, demographics, ideology, ability, and potential skeletons in the closet. Then there is an elusive and intangible X factor, when a selection might be wise but somewhat unpredictable. Of course there is also the matter of whether a veep prospect would make a good president, but let’s not get macabre here.
A running mate from Ohio or Florida might help carry those states, and in a very close race, a Virginian might be a plus. A candidate who appeals to a whole region has an obvious advantage, but few fit the bill.
In 2012, the turnout rate among African-Americans exceeded that of whites for the first time. What are the odds of that happening again in 2016? Probably not great, so maybe Sen. Cory Booker would be a good pick for Hillary Clinton. Rep. Xavier Becerra, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and his brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, have obvious demographic appeal, but an argument can be made that nobody gets out the Latino vote like Donald Trump.
Now consider ideology. In January, I did a dog-and-pony show with James Carville in the political-science class he teaches at Tulane. As James has been known to say, “I got a 4.0 back at LSU”—adding, “of course that was my blood-alcohol level.” Anyway, at one point James asked his students to raise their hands if they considered themselves Democrats, and roughly half did. He then asked the Democrats in the class to raise their hands if they were enthusiastic about a ticket headed by Hillary Clinton. One hand went up. Ouch.
He then asked how many of the Democrats would be enthusiastic if she were the nominee and selected as her running mate a certain white, male Democratic senator from a swing state that has often been mentioned as a possible choice (name withheld to avoid embarrassing that person). The same one hand went up. Then he asked how many of them would be enthusiastic if Clinton chose Sen. Elizabeth Warren as her running mate. It sure looked to me like every single Democratic hand went up. Wow, what a great way to make a point. Clinton might have to pivot left to ensure a strong turnout, particularly among those who backed Bernie Sanders.
The choice of a running mate often says a lot about a presidential nominee’s political circumstances. Not long after John McCain’s 2008 loss to Barack Obama, I asked someone who was a top adviser to McCain about the decision to pick Sarah Palin. The explanation went something like this: McCain desperately wanted to pick either Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. The advisers pushed back hard, arguing that both favored abortion rights and that the delegates would burn the convention hall to the ground if he picked anyone who wasn’t antiabortion.
McCain was roughly 20 points behind with women and running about dead even with men, which translated into being behind Obama by 10 or 12 points. President Bush was radioactive, so anybody with a connection to the Bush administration was disqualified. It was bad enough that McCain had been a member of Congress since 1982, and his team didn’t want to compound the problem with another member of that institution. It would be better, in fact, to pick someone who had never worked in Washington.
The pick had to be antiabortion and really needed to be someone who could chip away at Obama’s enormous lead among women. A process of elimination narrowed the list down to a fairly small number, and out popped Sarah Palin. Was it a fourth-and-long situation? Yes, it was a gamble. Standing in that St. Paul convention hall that night, Palin gave a pretty good speech, and for a day or two it looked like it might have been a decent bet. Then the bottom fell out.
Sometimes intangible factors are decisive. In 1992, Al Gore’s name was scarcely mentioned as a potential running mate for Bill Clinton. He was Clinton’s doppelganger in age, race, geography, and ideology. But the sum was deemed greater than the parts. So Clinton doubled down, the chemistry between the two men and their wives worked, and it turned out to be a great choice—at least through the election.
The truth is that running-mate choices are usually surprises. Sometimes they seemed like a good idea at the time but didn’t work out, other times the presidential nominee was given credit for having a golden touch. If someone asks you to bet on what Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will do, keep your wallet in your pocket.
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